The Hold Steady's Craig Finn turns to Austin, from producer to musicians and studio, for solo record
In December, Craig Finn, frontman for well-known Brooklyn rock band the Hold Steady, took the stage at downtown hot dog joint Frank as a warm-up for a tour to promote his new solo album, "Clear Heart Full Eyes," which is out Tuesday and was recorded in Austin with producer Mike McCarthy and a group of Austin musicians.
Aside from the fairly small, unusual venue (though the restaurant has been offering a steady stream of live music), the setup wasn't all that different from a show by Finn's other band: Men outnumbered women by at least 2-to-1, and a healthy amount of beer and booze was consumed.
Finn has never been outspoken in his appearance, and that night was no different, as he led the band in a plain blue shirt and rectangular glasses. As always, he gestured a lot as he sang, telling stories with his hands. He chatted between songs.
Though the songs were unmistakably Finn's - on the long side, full of words and narrative, references to Jesus and Catholicism (though not nearly as many as usual), dead rock stars and self-destructive behavior (but, again, not quite as much) - they were different than the Hold Steady's material. Finn sang more first- and second-person pronouns. If the Hold Steady's songs unfold like novels, with recurring characters negotiating the ups and (mostly) downs of adolescence, these songs felt more like short stories.
The biggest difference, however, was the sound, a considerably more reined-in version of the raucous, over-the-top rock 'n' roll that made the Hold Steady pretty famous over the past eight or so years.
On an uncharacteristically freezing Austin day that same week, Finn joked about the weather as he talked about the new album outside a packed coffee shop. "I'm a Minnesotan; I can handle the cold," he said, hands tucked into his jacket between sips of coffee.
Of course, fans of Finn and the Hold Steady already know that. The state, and Minneapolis in particular, is a common setting throughout the Hold Steady's catalog. Starting with its 2004 debut, "Almost Killed Me," the band has attracted a loyal following (and probably as many people who hate it) for its mix of over-the-top classic rock (Springsteen and the Replacements get thrown around a lot to describe their sound) and Finn's storytelling, informed in equal parts by his love of music and the world surrounding it and his Catholic upbringing. Kids make out at the high school dance, people get lost in drugs, some of those people find Jesus and are saved.
The band followed "Almost Killed Me" with "Separation Sunday," "Boys and Girls in America," "Stay Positive" and "Heaven is Whenever." Each album, it seemed, brought more people on board, at least judging by crowds at shows. The sound grew, too, perhaps peaking with "Boys and Girls," which begins with the four-minute-plus "Stuck Between Stations," an ode to teenagers in the Twin Cities stuffed with epic E Street-like piano, references to "On the Road" and the poet John Berryman.
Things leveled off on later albums, but the basic elements remained, albeit with less energy. Reviews of "Heaven is Whenever," which the band recorded without keyboard/piano player Franz Nicolay (who had grown into a prominent role in the band), were generally lukewarm, including one from Pitchfork that said the new songs "just don't hit as hard." The band wasn't as happy with the new album either, according to Finn, and touring had started to take its toll. The band decided to take a break.
In part to pass the time in January last year, Finn began writing a song a day. "I was listening to kind of classic songwriting, Townes Van Zandt, Warren Zevon, Randy Newman," Finn said. "A lot of the songs I wrote ended up being terrible. I kind of looked back and said this one's good, this one's not so good, and the songs all kind of came from there." Twenty-three songs emerged from the exercise.
He also wrote the music, a job that Tad Kubler usually handles with the Hold Steady. "I thought doing something different might challenge me a little bit," he said. "I kind of wanted to do a more organic record where I wrote the music and the lyrics. It's less me singing along with a band and more letting the words drive the thing. I was kind of leading the band with vocals, which is way different than I'm used to doing."
About a year earlier, Finn met McCarthy. He liked McCarthy's approach to music and decided he would record the album in Austin.
"I was looking for someone to really produce it," Finn said. "I wanted to hand over the songs at an early stage. One of the ways Mike produced it was to put together the band."
McCarthy, who has produced albums for Spoon, Patty Griffin, Heartless Bastards and many others, put together a studio team of Austin musicians, all of whom have had some success of their own, including Josh Block, Jesse Ebaugh, Ricky Ray Jackson and Billy White. Centro-matic's Will Johnson contributed some backup vocals.
"I'd spent some time with Craig and the songs, so I chose who I thought could carry out that vision and more," McCarthy said. "Personalities are also a large consideration. I wanted Craig to feel at ease and confident so he could record his vocal takes live with the band. These guys involved are great at working with strong lead vocalists in live settings and were impressive on previous recordings I had made with them."
At the beginning of July, Finn flew to Austin and met the band briefly before entering the studio. "I remember coming down and I was like `Oh, (expletive), what am I doing?'" Finn said. "I'm not a great musician, I'm not a great player. I play guitar in the Hold Steady, but you don't really hear me. Coming in with these guys that play at a really high level was somewhat intimidating."
Recording lasted three weeks, during which time Finn saw Alejandro Escovedo perform at the Continental Club ("I can't believe I've never been to this before"). The resulting album is different than anything he's ever released - less electric, more roots rock, especially with Jackson's pedal steel work.
"Mike sent me the demos, and I started trying to picture these with a band. As I was listening, I started to realize these were much darker, in contrast, to the Hold Steady," Jackson said. "The fact that he stepped out of his comfort zone gave me a great deal of respect for him. His lyrics are so good sometimes I have to block it out and focus on what I'm doing, or I'll just listen and miss a cue."
Absent for the most part are characters like Charlemagne, hiding drugs in his socks. In their place is something more introspective, particularly on "Rented Room," which sounds an awful lot like Finn is speaking from personal experience: "I've been thinking about the things we did/the things we talked about and the lives we lived/when things got bad we would just drink and sit/when things were good we would dance."
"Someone pointed out that they thought this record might be more personal, and they may be right," Finn said. "A lot of the record is about being alone, which for a touring musician is a very normal state. I'm a big walker, and I like to go explore."
Aside from the personnel, "Clear Heart Full Eyes" isn't an Austin or even a Texas album, though Finn takes the title from the "Friday Night Lights" television show. It's a reversed version of Coach Taylor's rallying cry, "clear eyes, full hearts, can't lose." Finn explained the connection in a letter announcing the album over the summer: "`Clear Heart' signifies honesty and transparency, and `Full Eyes' suggests experience. Thus, it's about being optimistic and open without succumbing to the weariness or doubt that comes with age and experience. To me, that is what it's all about."
Because his backing band on "Clear Heart" had obligations to their own bands, Finn put together a group of Austin musicians for an upcoming tour (Ricky Ray Jackson remains), including Falcon Valdez of the Happen-Ins, Alex Livingston of Grand Champeen and James Stevens of the Moonlight Towers on drums. No Austin date has been announced, but Finn said a local show would probably happen.
As for the Hold Steady, it is at work on its sixth studio album. In case fans were wondering if the solo album signaled a softening, Finn said it won't be anything like his solo album, with "a lot of guitars." "I think in some way it got out of my system," he said.